Amendment 31 proposes English immersion
and holding teachers responsible
On Nov. 5, Colorado voters will decide whether to end bilingual
education in public schools with a state Constitutional amendment,
and Los CompaF1eros, a local Hispanic advocacy group, is bracing
for a fight. The group plans to organize against Amendment 31,
which would essentially send non-native speakers into “sheltered
English-immersion classes” for one year – and then
place them in classes taught entirely in English.
Teachers would be able to grant waivers to
students who wished to stay in bilingual education classes. However,
they would be open to lawsuits – for up to 10 years –
by parents who felt their children’s education was harmed
by the waiver. Administrators could lose their licenses and/or
not hold public office for up to five years.
“The punishments are just ridiculous
for what they’re proposing,” said Ariel Bickel, coordinator
of social and political policy change for Companeros. “I
keep saying it would ‘eradicate’ (bilingual education)
but what I mean is ‘criminalize.’”
Bickel said the “one-size-fits-all
solution” Amendment 31 proposes is degrading, costly and
overly punitive. Furthermore, she said that children would be
traumatized when they fall behind in English-only classes because
they can’t understand new concepts in science, for example.
“These are brilliant students –
they’re not stupid – they just don’t speak English,”
Carol Harris, 9-R director of elementary
student achievement, coordinates the English-learner program for
K-12. The program used to be called ESL, or English as a Second
Language, but was changed in the last few years to ELL, English
Language Learners, since some students may speak more than two
languages, she said.
According to Harris, 9-R has been averaging
about 150 ELL students each year for the last six years. The program
differs from traditional “bilingual education” because
students meet in small groups for extra support in English –
rather than in their native language as in bilingual education
classes – for about 45 minutes to an hour after regular
So Harris opposes Amendment 31 because those
ELL classes would be eliminated.
“The children learn quite well that
way, and that’s where I’m opposed to Amendment 31,”
she said. “They really, really need that support.”
Harris pointed out that Spanish speakers
are not the only group that would be affected by the amendment.
She said that although they constitute the majority of ELL students
in the district, the fastest growing ELL group here and in the
Four Corners is American Indians, who often participate in ELL
because their native tongue is Navajo or another tribal language.
Bringing California to Colorado
Amendment 31 was brought to Colorado by Californian
Ron Unz, a conservative software entrepreneur who is chairman
of English for the Children, a group he founded to eradicate bilingual
education in America. Unz spearheaded his first initiative in
California – Proposition 227 – which passed in 1998.
Unz led another successful campaign in Arizona
in 2000; this year, he is funding efforts in Colorado and Massachusetts.
“Bilingual education has never worked
anywhere in America in the last 30 years,” he said, adding
that the concept “never made any sense” to him. And
he thinks there are enough Americans who feel the same way.
“I think we have a very good chance
of winning,” he said.
Unz’s partner in Colorado is Rita Montero,
a former bilingual-education advocate in Denver. Montero became
involved when her son Camilo – who spoke Spanish at home
– was placed in bilingual classes, even though she felt
he was proficient enough to be in English-only classes. As she
struggled against bureaucracy to gain a waiver to permit him to
leave the bilingual classes, she learned that some children were
kept as long as 12 years in all-Spanish language instruction.
“All of our opponents today are the
same opponents we had when we were trying to change this disastrous
program,” said Montero, who fought the program particularly
in the 90s.
To get her voice heard, Montero joined the
Denver School Board and advocated for change. The result was the
adoption of a program that called for native-language instruction
for three years with an increase in English language instruction
over the three years. But she felt that system failed, too. For
example, she said often assessment of placement in the program
was being made by secretaries, not educators, and she began organizing
protests with other parents.
A year after she was approached by Unz to
join his campaign she said to the other parents, “Let’s
“I know that holding a second language
will open doors for you, but you need to speak English first,”
Montero said the amendment needed stricter
punishments for teachers and school administrators who grant waivers
to stay in bilingual education in Colorado because teachers in
California and Arizona were “lying” after initiatives
passed by telling parents that the new program was bad, which
triggered demands for waivers.
“They put them all back in bilingual
education,” Montero said.
She said some teachers threatened parents
with deportation if their children didn’t stay in bilingual
“We’ll make these teachers think
twice about subverting the education process,” Montero said.
She said test scores of children affected
by California’s initiative rose substantially, though opponents
will attribute that to smaller class sizes and the use of phonics.
“It’s time to set (bilingual
education) aside and allow our kids to have the opportunity to
get an equal education,” Montero said.
Jenni Trujillo, a Fort Lewis College instructor
of teacher education and linguistics, said the opposite would
occur if Amendment 31 passes.
“It does not allow for equal access
to education,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo, who moved to the United States
from Venezuela when she was 11, said there is a distinction between
conversational English and academic proficiency. She said that
after the one year of immersion in English, the students may be
fluent in conversation, but that three years or so down the road,
when more complex concepts and words like photosynthesis are introduced,
the students should have access to additional support.
Trujillo compared the proposed system to
placing a deaf child in a language-immersion class for one year
and then saying, “OK, no more sign language.”
“It’s exactly the same thing
because they are not going to be able to learn new vocabulary
without continued support,” Trujillo said. “One year
is not going to cut it.”
Trujillo said some Hispanics may favor the amendment because they
think it will help their children learn English as quickly as
possible and because, in the past, Spanish-speaking students such
as themselves were sometimes given detention, spat upon or it
was dirty to speak Spanish.” As a result, there is a whole
generation of native Spanish speakers that want to disassociate
themselves with their language and “assimilate,” she
Victoria Romero Coe, a member of the Board
of Directors of the Durango Latino Education Coalition, was one
of about a dozen people at a “No on 31” organizational
meeting at Companeros last week.
“I can’t speak for the whole
board, but I’m against it,” Coe said after the meeting.
“It’s anti-pedagogical and something that’s
just going to worsen the drop-out rate for minority kids.”
Companeros Coordinator Olivia Lopez said
that the group will raise awareness before the election with a
number of events, including an educational forum at FLC and a
dance benefit in October.
“I have to tell you that, as an immigrant,
I am very, very concerned for my community, especially the children,”